| Photo by Leonardo Burgos on Unsplash
Thousands of Filipino children and millions worldwide suffer injustice, abandonment, being forced to work as enslaved people, and being deprived of nutritious food and education. They are trafficked as sex objects for the sexual gratification of lustful abusers, raped and abused by family members, and pedophiles, all for the satisfaction of adults. They are then branded as children with “criminal minds.”
Are we surprised that they should run away and live apart on the streets alone or in groups for survival? Should we be surprised if they do not trust adults and society to love and protect them?
As the government and society will not admit it, they are child victims, not criminals. They are violence, bullying, beatings, deprivation, and abuse victims. Should we be surprised if they grow up with anger, pain, and repressed suffering and turn to crime as adults, rejected and stigmatized as teenage criminals? Who formed the so-called “criminal minds” but the adults responsible for their childhood suffering when they had power over them as children. This we know since we are trying to save and protect them from such abuse before these children are damaged beyond healing and repair.
Since 1974, almost 50 years after the foundation of Preda, about 5000 youth and children in conflict with the law have been healed and found a new life through the therapy and program of life in the Preda open homes. They choose to stay by free choice, are treated with respect, dignity, care, therapy, and education, and are given understanding and acceptance. They have been healed and empowered.
However, no one in government has had a vision or is interested in helping and healing the children in conflict with the law in such a successful life program. Those with court cases won dismissal and lived successful lives of value. Instead, in most government facilities like Bahay Pag-asa’s, the youth and children are treated as criminals deserving punishment.
For the last 17 years, ever since the passing of the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act in 2006, which is being acknowledged this month, the Preda Foundation has been actively campaigning for the full implementation of this law. After years of campaigning by the Preda Foundation and other NGOs and media like CNN, Republic Act 9344 was enacted. The law was enacted to protect the vulnerable children in conflict with the law as they struggled to survive in a violent, drug-infested society without education, love, protection, or reception.
“By prioritizing rehabilitation, diversion, and restorative justice, Republic Act No. 9344 (R.A. 9344) or the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act (JJWA) recognizes the potential for positive change in young offenders and seeks to transform them into responsible and productive members of society” (PIA).
This law is vital to help children survive and stay alive on the streets or in impoverished families. Everyone has a right to eat, even if they have to steal. They were and are still being abused in some municipalities with jail cells, steel bars without sufficient beds, and decent, dignified facilities. They were considered to have “Criminal Minds.”
Mayors should visit these Bahay Pag-asa facilities and decide if they suit their children. What CNN showed in 2006 is still true in some places, despite the law that was supposed to change everything. You may watch the video here.
Preda Foundation was set up fifty years ago to address this shameful neglect and violation of child rights by the state and campaigned for a law to protect the thousands of abandoned, abused, and neglected street children. Only after the lockdown during Covid-19, the campaign to stop the jailing of children 15 and below succeeded. However, many older boys are still jailed despite the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Laws.
Preda, among others, tried to fully implement the child’s rights so that they are treated with dignity and respect and given full opportunities to recover and be educated. However, local officials in cities and municipalities do not yet fully recognize the value and rights of the children in conflict with the law.
In years past, children as young as ten were locked behind bars as criminals and mixed with adult criminals, as seen in the CNN report above. Senior social worker Emmanuel Drewery and Executive Director of the Preda Foundation, writes: “Since then, the wanton arrest and incarceration of minors, even those 15 and below who are not supposed to be arrested and jailed, sadly continues today.
What caused many children to be jailed and killed was the war on drugs campaign pushed by the previous administration, which resulted in many young people being apprehended and jailed as suspects for using and peddling illegal drugs. Unfortunately, many young people were executed on the streets without arrest, evidence, or trial. Therefore, shelter protection for the most vulnerable is of greater importance as the youth face the dreaded death squads.
The youth and children are no longer safe on the streets but have nowhere else to go. The World Organization Against Torture reported that at least 122 children aged from 1 to 17 and as many as 30,000 young and middle-aged adults have been killed by police during operations, and vigilante killings are rampant in this so-called war on drugs. Street children are especially vulnerable as they are arrested for vagrancy and are branded as criminals. Therefore, the protection of the youth is the top priority.
The government’s youth detention facilities, ironically called “Bahay Pag-asa” or “Houses of Hopes,” offer very little hope for properly rehabilitating these minors. Most Bahay Pag-asas still offer detention-like experiences for these boys. They are overflowing with youth inmates and are overcrowded. Many young children are imprisoned in these facilities alongside older youth who bully them.
The younger children, some as young as 12, are still incarcerated despite the law forbidding it, and they suffer physical abuse and even sexual abuse. They are in dire circumstances as most of the jail cells have no beds, and some boys would sleep on the floor. Bullying is common, and the children there are fed very poorly; sometimes, expired or spoiled food is served.
There is still an urgent need for these Bahay Pag-asas to be reformed and offer a proper rehabilitation program and experience that heals, empowers, educates, and respects children’s rights. Thus, Preda continues its advocacy work for the Juvenile Justice and Welfare law to be properly and fully implemented”.
We may ask Where the life of a street child or a child in conflict with the law begins. The answer, of course, is that it starts in the home. They run away to the street because of poverty, hunger, abuse, and neglect. Family breakdown is common, and they suffer child abuse in their own families. Many children are being saved from the streets and protected by Preda Foundation before they are put in government jail-like facilities. They are as young as 6 to 15 years of age. They are abandoned on the streets and must get immediate priority before they are seriously harmed and hurt.
The challenge to the government is to learn and respect the rights of minors in conflict with the law and reform the Bahay Pag-asas. Can the Philippine government appoint a progressive child rights protector and reformer to implement positive changes in the child detention system?
The reform must provide a quality recovery and empowerment program where the youth and children are happy to get care and education, be enlightened with moral values, and be given hope and a sense of freedom and education. They need an intelligent yet compassionate healing, recovery, and aftercare program.